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Interpolating Harriet Tubman: Representation of Gender and Heroism in David Bradley's The Chaneysville IncidentMaha Marouan

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In a similar way, Harriet Tubman's association with the biblical Moses is mainly expressed through the male characters. The text describes Moses Washington as having a resemblance to the biblical Moses in the sense that he is depicted as a hero and a liberator of his people. There is no insinuation in the novel of Harriette Brewer's association with the biblical figure, despite the fact that Bradley ostensibly is modeling her on Tubman. Bradley, however, reclaims Moses' story as exclusively male, first by associating the name Moses with a key male figure in the novel (Moses Washington) and second, by using the biblical story to define the male characters only. Thereby, he fails to draw on Tubman's experience in ways that bridge gender boundaries. Further, despite Bradley's claim about intending to shape his female heroine on Tubman, he does not give her much narrative attention. He acknowledges her heroism, but within his limited fictional rendition. In this sense, the novel's engagement with the Exodus story and its historical significance for African Americans remains relatively one-dimensional as it downplays the contribution of women. It seems that the price of Bradley's construction of black male heroism is the loss of the significance of black women's voices.

Contrary to Bradley's limited representation of gender dynamics through Tubman, this historical figure's association with the biblical Moses shows that the biblical name transcended gender boundaries to become associated with both men and women, reflecting on the way both male and female slaves utilized the Exodus narrative. Thus, Tubman's story remains highly valuable because it defies the limits of traditional Christian theology. Melanie J. Wright, in Moses In America talks about the problematics of the biblical Moses story as a male-centered text:

As modern feminists have stressed, although Exodus-Deuteronomy places women's struggles at the inception of national liberation (Exodus 1:15—2:10), it subsequently denies their role in the development of that process. The attempts of Merriam the prophet (Exodus: 15:20) to challenge Moses' status (Numbers 12:2) results in punishment and infamy (Deuteronomy 9). Moreover, the former slaves' God sometimes advocates violence against women. [22]

Therefore, within the context of feminist theology, Tubman's story remains unique because it has at once both valued and transcended the biblical text. Bradley's novel, however, fails in recording Tubman's feminist experience and falls within a conservative Christian interpretation of the biblical text by connecting the liberational impulses of the Exodus narrative and Tubman's historical example to male characters like C.K. and Moses Washington more so than to female characters like Harriette Brewer. This limited rendering of gender undercuts Bradley's complex and multifaceted engagement with African American history.

The identification of Harriette Brewer with Tubman in the novel seemingly remains obscure for fear that a more explicit comparison would emasculate the novel's patriarchal heroes. Tubman, who took on "male" activities in scheming and carrying out dangerous missions in the South, threatens Bradley's celebration of male heroism, which is defined by physical action and control over the environment. Tubman not only invaded the masculine world; she surpassed men in her courage. Nies tells how Harriet Tubman runs away with two of her brothers, and how "After one night in the woods Tubman's two brothers turned back. But Tubman determined to go on—alone." [23] Harriet's individualism defies the stereotype associated with black women in slavery, which associates the heroism of black women with working in the community. However, Tubman's individualism was also paralleled by a strong sense of family values. In her various trips South she succeeded in liberating most of the members of her family, including her ageing parents. Bradford talks about how Tubman struggled to bring her old parents to the North:

For she brought with her to the north her old parents, who were no longer able to walk such distances as she must go by night. Consequently she must hire a wagon for them, and it required all her ingenuity to get them through Maryland and Delaware safe. [24] Tubman also went back to free her husband "but she found him married to another woman, and no longer caring to live with her." [25] The importance of family links to Tubman, as the quotation above demonstrates, reunites Tubman together with Bradley's male heroes—especially Moses and John—in their attempt to preserve their generational line and family history.

The construction of an African American historical and cultural consciousness in The Chaneysville Incident is highly subversive in the way it challenges traditional versions of history and questions the representation of blackness in mainstream American literary discourse, interrogating the limited construction of black masculinity and reclaiming a rich African American cultural heritage. Further, Bradley does attempt to forge an active role to Harriette and Judith. Nevertheless, the exploration of gender remains limited. Despite Bradley's attempt to record women's experiences, the novel remains a male-centered text and subscribes to a conventional construction of gender in its attempt to rewrite black male heroism. One critic argues, "Bradley treats the construction of gender as he does the reconstruction of history—as a process—and we must examine the process as a whole." [26] However, it is my argument that Bradley's limited representation of gender impacts on other aspects of the narrative, and renders the novel's exploration of African American historical and cultural identity seriously flawed because it is expressed from an exclusively male perspective.

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Maha Marouan is an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

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